ABC News's Charlie Gibson Calls the Shots, Lands on Top

"At the beginning, I kept thinking, 'Well, I'm not absolutely certain I'm right.' Now I'm more willing to express my gut," says ABC anchor Charlie Gibson. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

NEW YORK, May 16 -- After word arrived Tuesday afternoon that Jerry Falwell had suffered a fatal heart attack, Charlie Gibson was determined not to lead his newscast with the preacher's death.

"It lends importance to a figure whose legacy contained a lot of positives and a lot of negatives," says the ABC anchor, who was once a reporter in Falwell's home base of Lynchburg, Va. "It venerates the subject to an extent that I didn't think belonged there. He was a controversial figure."

There was no right answer -- NBC's Brian Williams and CBS's Katie Couric both led with multiple Falwell stories, while Gibson began with a possible deal on immigration legislation. But the decision underscored the extent to which Gibson is firmly in control at what recently emerged as the top-rated evening newscast.

"At the beginning," says the former co-host of "Good Morning America," "I kept thinking, 'Well, I'm not absolutely certain I'm right.' Now I'm more willing to express my gut."

When he took over "World News" one year ago, Gibson was featured on no magazine covers, appeared in no gossip columns and shied away from interviews. He practically sneaked onto the stage during the media frenzy over Couric's pending move to CBS.

"There was a comfort factor he had to gain," says executive producer Jon Banner. As a substitute, "he had been a guest in someone else's house at 'World News' for years. He did a great job, but it wasn't his chair."

The key to Gibson's success, says ABC News President David Westin, is his reporting background. "The one essential quality a successful evening news anchor has is they love the news," he says. "I knew Charlie had that. He has a wonderful rapport with our correspondents and he conveys that, both behind the scenes and on the air."

Gibson's relaxed style has revived a news division that lost one anchor to cancer and temporarily lost another to a roadside bomb in Iraq. "World News" has led the ratings pack for 10 of the last 14 weeks. Last week, Gibson drew 7.91 million viewers, Williams 7.16 million and Couric 6.13 million.

"The ratings fascination totally puzzles me," Gibson says. "I am amazed at the number of people who pay attention to it and how often people comment on it. Obviously if you get into this, ratings becomes a part of it because it's an important arbiter for everyone. I didn't say to myself, 'Boy, I want to be number one in a year.' We haven't won anything yet. Hell, Brian's beaten us more weeks than we've beaten him."

After Peter Jennings's death in 2005, Westin, worried about breaking up the morning partnership of Gibson and Diane Sawyer, bypassed the veteran in favor of the younger team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. Westin also felt he needed to reinvent the genre by trying a dual-anchor format in which one would usually be on the road.

Only after Woodruff was wounded in Iraq and Vargas became pregnant did Westin call Gibson off the bench.

"NBC Nightly News" remains competitive, with Williams having landed an interview in London Tuesday with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Couric's "CBS Evening News," despite a harder edge under new executive producer Rick Kaplan, recently registered its lowest rating in 20 years.

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